Why Sosa-McGwire yields yawns in 1999

There was a flurry of attention over the last few days when home-run hitters supreme Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went head to head in three games at Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Sosa (salary this year: $9 million) hit no more homers in the series, leaving his season total thus far at 61. McGwire ($8.8 mil) added one more, giving him 59. These are unfathomable numbers. It's a soaring achievement for both.

But it was only a flurry.

Why is it we are decidedly less than mesmerized with their prodigious accomplishments this year when we were riveted last year? It's because we are a nation that embraces first and historic but cools off dramatically when presented with again and repeat. Again lacks punch. Repeat tends to be even more drab. Our eyes glaze over when we read about "repeat offenders" and "repeated blunders."

Last month, a headline in the Bend (Ore.) Bulletin regarding men's slow-pitch softball read, "Bend Team Repeats as State Champs." In Atlanta, the news was, " '98 Trap Shoot Champs Repeat." Either one of those fire you up or give you goose bumps?

People who repeat things, they have told us, drive us nuts. We tune out. Another example would be in Atlanta, where the news was, " '98 Trap Shoot Champs Repeat."

The fact is, again and repetition often deserve far more respect. Let's look at McGwire and Sosa. Last season, the two dueled in a scintillating battle to determine not only who would hit the most homers but whether one, both, or neither would break the 1961 record of 61 held by Roger Maris. Turned out McGwire boomed 70, Sosa 66.

Incredible. Sports' most-honored record, which almost always stands as a towering monument with a bunch of ants scampering around at its base, suddenly underwent a two-pronged attack. It was fascinating. We heard of the latest blasts at the top of the 10 o'clock news and saw reports at the top of the newspaper page.

To go through what these two did physically and emotionally, and then do it again this year, is a searing accomplishment. Repeating in sports is difficult for many reasons, mainly because it's just hard to psych the spirit for another assault on the same mountaintop. Plus, even if an athlete fails to repeat, there is little more than a shrug: "Well, I did it once, and they can't take that away from me."

This year the same race is chopped liver.

We're trying to act worked up this time around, but it's like opening a Christmas present and discovering it's socks. We want to be more excited. We just aren't. We feel guilty. Newspapers still occasionally try to get in the spirit by putting some McGwire-Sosa exploit on the front page, but it looks silly. It's like headlining: "Halloween Scheduled Next Month; Thanksgiving to Follow."

Besides our general dislike of repetition, McGwire and Sosa trouble us on three fronts:

*They are mocking a record we think of as legendary. In our hearts, it's Babe Ruth's record (he hit 60 in 1927) and always will be. If it was such a big deal, then how come McGwire and Sosa toy with it? We like things that last. Change troubles.

*Just as nobody wants to dwell on the fact that McGwire beat the record when he was using performance-enhancing drugs banned by a number of sports, likewise nobody wants to point out that, in many respects, McGwire and Sosa are only solid, journeymen hitters. In their series this week, each managed one hit in a combined 19 at bats. Both hit around .280 in a game in which .300 minimally defines excellence. Both lead their clubs in strikeouts.

*McGwire's Cardinals and Sosa's Cubs are dreadful, two of the worst teams in baseball. There are a few left who stubbornly insist that baseball is a team game.

*Have the pitchers no pride? It's as if they are part of the circus, standing out there on the mound with the mission of making the stars look good. They are the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters. There is no reason they should keep serving up waist-high fast balls out over the plate. Come on.

Let's see McGwire and Sosa sprawled in the dirt, desperately avoiding a smoking high inside fastball. That always does something for leveling the playing field between pitcher and batter.

Or maybe we have succumbed to what familiarity breeds.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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